An interview with U.S. Olympic Tri coach Michelle Blessing

2000 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Teams Coach Michelle Blessing  Credit: USA Triathlon
Last week USA Triathlon selected Michelle Blessing to coach the 2000 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Teams. At the request of the athletes who qualified for the teams in April and May, Blessing was chosen over the more obvious candidate, current National Teams coach Matt Haugen.

A former professional triathlete and cyclist, Blessing is the independent coach of Olympians Nick Radkewich and Jennifer Gutierrez. In addition, she coaches the top Chilean triathlete Benita Gras-Thompson and six USA Triathlon Junior Team members.

The mother of two young daughters, Blessing is believed to be among the first women to coach both the mens and womens U.S. Olympic Teams in a single sport.

Recently, spoke with Blessing to discuss her new position and the sport of triathlon. Were you surprised to be chosen to coach the first U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team?

Michelle Blessing: I wasnt completely shocked that the athletes voted for me, but I was more shocked that the board OKd it. I used to be more involved with USAT, but I didnt like all the politics involved in working with an NGB and I decided it was just easier to go the independent route. I left USAT on not the best of terms two years ago. I was pretty disillusioned, and they were very unhappy with me, as well.

So I was a little hesitant to go back into the fray, and it turned out to be pretty hellish, quite frankly. There were some things that happened leading up to the Dallas Trials that made me at times ask myself, What in the world am I doing? Why am I doing this again when what I really like to do is coach?

But the support of the athletes I work with helped a lot.

A: Why were the athletes so keen on having you as their coach?

MB: Im familiar with most of them. Ive coached a number of them and have worked with others at camps. Another thing is that Im really organized. I get stuff done. They can count on me to be in control. Also, Im very easygoing. Im not overly egotistical like a lot of coaches.

A: What is your own athletic background?

MB: I started running when I was 14, back when jogging was a craze. I started because, for some reason, I thought I was fat, which is so absurd. I got really into it, though, and raced a lot through high school and I loved it. But then by my senior year I hated it. I hated running and I hated competing.

In college I didnt run a step for two years and I gained about 20 pounds. I didnt like being so unhealthy, so I picked up running again and even started working with a coach. I started doing half-marathons, but just as I was getting back into competing I got pregnant and I couldnt tolerate a lot of mileage, so thats when someone suggested that I do a triathlon.

I did one and got completely smoked, but I decided, I want to be good at this. I trained hard all winter and came back the next year and won a ton of races as an amateur and qualified for Hawaii. I went pro the next year and just kind of fooled around with it, never getting too serious. I had two kids and a lot of other stuff going on in my life.

After I got burned out on triathlon I did a stint in cycling with the Saturn team. I traveled around with them and had a lot of fun. But at about that time I got divorced. My kids were four and five and very needy and I just could not justify the time away from them, so I quit racing and quit training. I kept thinking, Ill get back. But its been four years and I havent quite gotten back to doing much racing, mostly because Ive been so busy coaching.

A: Do you have a particular coaching philosophy?

MB: I try to follow sound scientific principles, but I think its also important to be creative and to individualize workouts for athletes. Im very firm and demanding with my athletes Im no pushover, which accounts for some of my success, I think. A lot of American coaches are way too easy on the athletes. Im not condoning what some of the Australian coaches do, but I think theres a happy medium. You get a lot more out of your athletes if youre mean to them every now and then!

People ask me what my secret is, and my secret is just that Ive had a ton of great coaches, from Chris Carmichael to Joe Vigil some of the top single-sport guys out there.

Not only that, but I have athletes coming to me all the time who have had other coaches and I pick their brains left and right. I have one athlete with me right now who trained with Col Stewart and some of the other big guys in Australia, and Ive been getting all kinds of information from him.

Nobody knows it all in this sport. Its still a very new sport and any coach who thinks hes got it all figured out is a pretty (bad) coach.

A: Whats your best success story with an athlete?

MB: Ive had a few. Nick Radkewich is one example. He had his worst year ever in 97 and then we started working together around the beginning of 98. When I first talked to him he was going to quit the sport. He had no money. He didnt know what he was going to do.

So I bought a painting from his house. I said, OK, Ill give you $800 for that painting thatll get you through two months of training. I told him, I know you can do it. We overhauled his training and worked on his attitude and a month later he won his first race. That year he won a lot of USTS races and the Goodwill Games qualifier in Clermont, Fla.

But a coach is only as good as the athletes she coaches. Ive been fortunate to work with some very talented athletes who make me look good.

A: What are your job duties as the Olympic Coach?

MB: Its all good and glamorous to be named the Olympic Teams Coach, but really its mostly a logistical kind of position. Im working with the team manager, the bike mechanic, and the masseuse, and its our job to make sure that everything is set up before the athletes get over there.

Theres very little actual coaching involved. Ill run swim workouts and keep coaching the athletes Ive been coaching (Radkewich and Gutierrez). Ive also been coordinating with the personal coaches of the other team members to make sure their needs are met and that were all on the same page, but it would be crazy for me to actually take over training those athletes myself at this point.

A: How do you like the Americans chances in Sydney?

MB: I think we have six very good athletes and I think were going to see some medals.

Michelle Blessing was also interviewed recently on's Sports You Do Show.

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